To Live Forever: Horror and the Abject in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

On June 30, 2020, New York Times journalist Kristen Bateman highlights the “Dark Academia” fashion aesthetic movement taking over online social spaces such as TikTok and Instagram as a cultural response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. In the article, Bateman credits Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as the penultimate influences over the aesthetic movement and the creation of the Dark Academia literary subgenre. While this subgenre itself has roots in gothic literature, the ultimate draw to Tartt’s book is the theory of “the abject,” coined by French theorist Julia Kristeva, running throughout the novel. Unlike the horrors in Tartt’s gothic predecessors, Tartt creates horror through the perversion of the ordinary, transforming classic gothic tropes into an influential, popular subgenre for a modern audience. This paper explores Tartt’s use of “the abject” – a theory defined by Kristeva in her Powers of Horror as a place “where meaning collapses” and the symbolic order breaks down – to construct a new literary subgenre and (by extension) a cultural movement that fills the space gothic literature has left behind as it has fallen out of fashion. Main character Richard, acting as a stand-in for the reader, introduces and exemplifies the abject and its relationship to fear in a modern context for the reader, and it is that feeling of social order and meaning collapsing that so appeals to an audience who has experienced similar feelings amongst an unprecedented global pandemic. Though Tartt’s work precedes the pandemic by almost 30 years, its resurgence in popularity is driven by this connection to the theory of the abject, filling a much needed cultural gap.

Author: Miranda Miller